How to prevent cold stress in outdoor workers

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Protect outdoor workers during winter

  1. Learn the types of cold stress (trench foot, hypothermia, frostbite)
  2. View how to administer first aid to the various types of cold stress
  3. Consider these ways to prevent cold stress

As an employer, it’s imperative during the winter season that you stay aware of outside temperatures. This will help you better help gauge workers’ exposure to wind chill and prevent cold stress. You will also need to monitor workers’ physical condition during tasks, especially those who are not as used to working in the cold as others, or workers returning after spending some time away from work.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio is a nationwide network of radio stations broadcasting continuous weather information from the nearest NWS office. It will give information when wind chill conditions reach critical thresholds. A Wind Chill Warning is issued when wind chill temperatures are life threatening. A Wind Chill Advisory is issued when wind chill temperatures are potentially hazardous.

Related: 10 ways to keep employees safe from winter work hazards

 

What is it and how do you prevent cold stress?

“Cold stress” can be a little tricky to define, as it can vary across different areas of the country. In regions that are not used to winter weather, near freezing temperatures are considered factors for “cold stress.” Increased wind speed also causes heat to leave the body more rapidly (wind chill effect). Cold stress occurs by driving down the skin temperature, and eventually the internal body temperature. When the body is unable to warm itself, serious cold-related illnesses and injuries may occur, and permanent tissue damage and death may result. Types of cold stress include:

  • Trench foot: This is caused by extended exposure to cold conditions, typically resulting in symptoms like reddened skin, leg cramps, blistering and numbness.
  • Hypothermia: This occurs when a person’s body temperature is exposed to cold temperatures long enough to fall below 95°F. While this usually only occurs in instances of extreme cold, it can also be brought on by prolonged exposure to rain or immersion in freezing water. Symptoms include uncontrollable shivering, loss of coordination, slowed breathing, slurred speech and in more severe cases, loss of consciousness and even death.
  • Frostbite: Arguably the most severe form of cold stress, frostbite occurs when the skin and surrounding tissues are frozen. This can lead to permanent damage to the body, possibly even amputation in extreme cases. Symptoms include reddened skin with patches of gray or white in the nose, fingers or toes, along with a loss of feeling in the affected area.
Related: The hard, cold facts on how to prevent winter damage

 

How to administer first aid for cold stress

If an employee has developed trench foot, it’s recommended that you:

  • Immediately call 911 or seek medical assistance.
  • Remove the employee’s wet clothing, such as boots and socks.
  • Keep their feet dry and elevated and avoid walking until medical assistance arrives.

If an employee has developed hypothermia, it’s recommended that you:

  • Immediately call 911 or seek medical assistance.
  • Move the employee to a dry, warm area and remove any wet clothing.
  • Wrap their entire body (excluding the face) in layers of warm blankets. Place heated pads and warmed bottles in their armpits, around the torso and groin.
  • Give them warm liquids to drink to increase their internal temperature and continue while waiting for medical assistance to arrive.

If an employee has developed frostbite, it’s recommended that you:

  • Immediately call 911 or seek medical assistance and follow the tips for hypothermia.
  • Protect the affected area as much as possible by wrapping a piece of dry cloth around it loosely and avoid any contact until medical professionals arrive.
  • Avoid placing heat pads on the affected area, as it could potentially lead to further tissue damage.
Related: Winter loss control tips for your business during the holidays

 

More ways to prevent cold stress

Although OSHA does not have a specific standard that covers working in cold environments, under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) of 1970, employers have a duty to protect workers from recognized hazards, including cold stress hazards, that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm in the workplace. Here are a few additional tips to prevent cold stress in your outdoor workers, courtesy of OHSA:

  • Employers should train workers on how they can prevent cold stress. Training should include:
    • How to recognize the environmental and workplace conditions that can lead to cold stress.
    • The symptoms of cold stress, how to prevent cold stress, and what to do to help those who are affected.
    • How to select proper clothing for cold, wet, and windy conditions.
  • Employers should:
    • Monitor workers’ physical condition.
    • Schedule frequent short breaks in warm dry areas, to allow the body to warm up.
    • Schedule work during the warmest part of the day.
    • Use the buddy system (work in pairs).
    • Provide warm, sweet beverages. Avoid drinks with alcohol.
    • Provide engineering controls such as radiant heaters.